No matter what group you join, in real life or online, you will have extreme personalities that are constantly pitted against each other and the rest of the group that really wanted to get something out of their involvement with the group end up refereeing or watching a crazy train of epic proportions until they either join one extreme or become disgusted and walk away. It can be at your place of employment, your church, your extracurricular activities and on down to the online sites we all join in order to network with others that are interested in the same things so that we might learn from each other. Of course the most noteworthy and prevalent groups that are always making the news for their sometimes deadly standoffs include political groups and religious groups. There are so many seriously crazy people that are just blindly willing to hate another simply because of who they vote for or which religion they choose to practice. They make all kinds of accusations and assumptions based solely on their hatred without any truth being involved in the process. Extremists ruin everything because they are unable to take part in a civilized activity or discussion, and they think that being part of a group places them in an “us” against “them” situation because that is their mental state. I can’t see extremist comments online or hear them in person without thinking of Bear Brown from “The Alaskan Bush People”. Bear is the epitome of every extremist I have ever met, but he is pretty dim and mostly happy and personable so his views are not hard to deal with. Like most extremists, he is underemployed or mostly not employed because his behavior makes him unemployable. Those that do work are not productive or effective because all they do is whine, moan and threaten others until they are eventually fired or move on. Most extremists are actually angry and on the verge of violence all the time, but just as dim as Bear. Here is a little clip of Bear. I am relatively sure he will never find a woman quite as “extreme” as he is, or that likes to climb trees as much as he does, but you never know. There seems to be someone for everyone. His total ridiculousness and dedication to his delusions are “extreme” which is preferable to most extremism.
Extremism is highly dangerous because it often results in views that are detached from reality, or that are destructive to the ideals of others. This type of group-think can also lead to a dehumanizing aspect where members of opposing belief systems start to seem less like real and important people.(We are able to empathize more with people more like us.) History has proven that this can lead to horrendous acts of violence and even genocide. As you begin to become somewhat fanatical about a subject, you can start to experience an extreme emotional response when you are preaching your cause or engaging in your practice. People have been shown to have similar firing in the brain when watching football games, or when singing a patriotic song. The emotion then becomes a reinforcing factor that means you start to associate your extreme view with powerful positive emotions, meaning that you become almost ‘addicted’ to your cause and get an almost ‘high’ from it.
All beliefs and ideas can be put onto a spectrum. A Nazi is someone who is to the extreme right of politics meaning that they have taken certain concepts to what most would perceive as an extreme level. Being right wing in itself is fairly normal, but of course this normal start can lead to you becoming gradually more obsessive and extreme. Being on the left of politics likewise is not wrong or right, it’s only when you go all the way to the left that your views can be classified as communist and potentially extreme. You might start out fairly normal in your political or religious beliefs, but then fall prey to a number of psychological effects that can lead you to fall deeper down the rabbit hole.
Confirmation bias refers to our tendency to ignore information that contradicts our beliefs and to only accept as truth information that confirms it and enforces it. Many people will read magazines and books that confirm their beliefs and only listen to the one side of the story. They then become more and more certain of their beliefs, potentially delusionally so. Convergence refers to an individual’s tendency to become more similar to members of any group they are in and even their language tends to become more similar, and over the top. Divergence is the tendency for a group to become less similar to other groups that they know of in order presumably to build a clearer identity and to differentiate themselves. Becoming more and more diverse from others will mean coming up with more and more ‘out there’ concepts which the whole group is likely to agree with due to the convergence principle. Think Westboro Baptists or Al Qaida and cults like The Branch Davidians or The Peoples Temple (Jonestown Massacre).
Clearly there are many different causes for extremism. Some people are seriously emotionally disturbed, and yet others are just introduced to a belief system at a time in their life when they are weak and vulnerable. It is important to engage in conversations and seek out opinions from people with differing views. You may never agree on everything, or anything for that matter. In order to keep our own thoughts and feelings moderate and rational, it is important to not become involved in group think that condemns others or lumps them into categories that dehumanize them in any way. I have seen this happen in many different settings, some more serious than others. Just tonight I noticed I had been added to a group that defends the right to bear arms. I happen to believe in that right as long as it is done legally and responsibly. I took a close look at the group and on one side you have people that want to march on cities while open carrying and carrying a flag. I am not a good zealot I guess, because I would rather have my toenails removed with a toothpick than do that. On the other end you have the trolls that join just to tell everyone how evil they are because they choose to exercise their legal rights. Looking on their page, they have pictures of mangled animals and they wear eyelashes with butterfly wings on them while protesting legal hunts. I am also not a hunter but I do not tolerate people who use visual images that are disturbing in order to manipulate others to follow their cause. I will actively advocate for worthwhile causes but my distaste for extremes of anything make me a hard target.